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Mystery, Thriller, or Suspense: Does the Label Matter?

14 April 2017

from dyiMFA:

When you search for a book to read, do genre labels drive your choices? They certainly affect mine. If I want a fast paced, edge-of-your-seat-experience I look for a thriller. If I’m in a puzzle-solving mood, it’s off to the mystery section. And I expect them all to have elements of suspense.

And yet, on my quest to find the perfect book, I’ve seen the terms suspense and thriller used interchangeably, and instances when mysteries were labeled thrillers.

. . . .

New York Times bestselling author David Morrell says, “One crucial distinction is that traditional mysteries appeal primarily to the mind and emphasize the logical solution to a puzzle.”

Most of the books I read are mysteries, so this made sense to me. But I wanted more detail so I decided to dig a little deeper.

In her article, The Curious Case of the Appeal of Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense, librarian Becky Spratford writes, “A mystery is a story in which a crime is committed and the “whodunit” and why is unknown until the very end.”

Bestselling crime author Joel Goldman defines it in a slightly different way, “A mystery is built around a secret and usually asks the question “Who?” Something has already happened – a jewel has been stolen, a person has been murdered ­– and both the reader and hero know about it. The whole novel is dedicated to uncovering who is responsible for that event.”

. . . .

The definition of a mystery seemed pretty clear, so I wondered if the ambiguity was between thriller and suspense. David Morrell says, “Thrillers strive for heightened emotions and emphasize the sensations of what might be called an obstacle race and a scavenger hunt.”

. . . .

“In a thriller, a reader usually asks the question ‘How?’ and is propelled through the story by action.” Joel Goldman contends. “Both the reader and the hero of a thriller novel already know who’s responsible for the crime, and both are waiting to see how that criminal will be brought to justice.”

Becky Spratford writes, “A thriller centers on a particular profession such as espionage, law, or medicine. Solving the crime and the puzzle it presents takes a back seat to the jargon of the profession, the potential dangers faced by those involved in it, and the fast-paced, cinematic action of these stories. Thrillers often feature a loner hero who operates under his or her own moral code and the storylines are marked by the cat-and-mouse chase between the hero and villain.”

Link to the rest at dyiMFA


25 Comments to “Mystery, Thriller, or Suspense: Does the Label Matter?”

  1. Hmm, I’m curious to see what the writers have to say but my own take on those labels as a reader is that mysteries are about a puzzle, suspense is about the emotional threat, and thrillers are about action. I see it as a matter of approach and tone.

    • I thoroughly agree with your definitions.

      Unfortunately, once people (both trad publishers and indies) found out that thrillers sell better than the other two, all kinds of books were suddenly labeled as thrillers.

      • Elise, you are right about that. I’m not too familiar with those genres, but publishers have branded them all as “those thriller books,” especially when they have girl in the title. Sometimes the mystery label comes through, but usually that branding is tainted with thriller. Psychological thriller, thrilling literary mystery, blah blah blah.

        I don’t care enough about the suspense label to pick nits, so I’ll leave that to the experts.

      • There’s also a tendency in TV and Movies to “juice up” mysteries.

        So Conan Doyle’s mysteries become Suspenseful Sherlock (at their rare best) or Ritchie’s thrillers (being charitable).

        • Wasn’t sure who Ritchie was, so I Googled. First result:

          Sherlock Holmes is a 2009 British-American neo-noir mystery period action film based on the character of the same name created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

          Even without having seen the film, I get your point from that word salad of adjectives.

    • I agree with you.

      Mysteries are cerebral, the intellectual puzzle, though there are some where the murderer is known and it’s other things that must be discovered.

      Suspense is an emotional out on a limb, but not yet falling. Anxiety, dread, fear, all come into play on this one.

      A thriller is the trip from the tree to the ground and will someone be there to catch me when I fall? These are the ones that cause the adrenaline rush.

      Just my 2 cents.

      Peace, love, and chocolate y’all!

      ;> MF

  2. Al the Great and Powerful

    Suspenseful Sherlock is certainly NOT their rare best, though Ritchie’s adaptations are just as bad in a different way.

    The Cumberbeast is another actor playing himself, which makes his Sherlock no Sherlock at all, just Cumberdude in costume.

    Might as well sub in Bruce Willis, or Don Rickles, or Dean Martin. Nay nay, let us have SHERLOCK be the character, rather than Benedict, or Deano, or Bruce, THAT would be rare best.

  3. Interesting. The article cites Gone Girl as a thriller. Isn’t a mystery because we’re supposed to puzzle together what happened to Amy via her journal entries? Isn’t it suspense because of the looming dread hovering above Nick?
    I thought a thriller was an antagonist-driven story that put the main character in jeopardy from chapter 1. It’s hard to say.

  4. This is one of the few cases where the answer to a title question is “yes”

    what matters isn’t the particular word that’s used, but if all the books labeled with a particular word are are reasonably similar.

    see the Brad Torgersen post: https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/sad-puppies-3-the-unraveling-of-an-unreliable-field/

  5. The genre on the other side of the fence is always greener.

  6. Thrillers focus on future actions. Stop the nutcase from shooting Joe.

    Mysteries focus on past actions. Who shot Joe?

    • I like your definitions Terrance; they created a clear picture in my mind instantly. But how would you define (pure, true) Supense fiction?
      Would you say:

      Suspense focuses on the present. Is there a nutcase lurking out there right now planning to shoot Joe?

    • Brilliant!!! 😀

    • Perfect. And Dimitri, I’ll go with your definition of suspense.

      • Thanks WIddershins & Jamie. Unfortunately I don’t think legacy publishers
        care about the differences, like it was stated above by Elise: if thrillers sell then publishers of them tend to mark them all as thrillers .

        But in my experience I found that readers at least, like the writers who visit this site, certainly do care about the differences!

  7. A mystery is about a puzzle.

    A thriller is about an exciting puzzle …

  8. I tend to define mystery, at least on tv as either a
    “Thinking Man’s Mystery,”
    ie Poirot, Columbo, and the like.
    Where violence is a minimal, and blood and gore are also downplayed.
    The main emphasis is on the detective using “His Little Gray Cells” and other methods to solve the crime.
    The opposite is the “Action” type detective who uses brains, supplemented with the liberal use of muscle, gunplay, and physical imitation, to solve the crime. Ie Mike Hammer or any number of Police Detective shows that are now.

    • And where would you put CSI?
      They never shied away from the blood and guts but they rarely indulged in care chases or shoot outs.

      They relied on a different kind of, ahem, visceral sensationalism. 😉

      • Probably more the Thinking man’s mystery, as you say, their Definitely NOT cozy, and the majority of Detective work is done through science, and good ole’ legwork and patience.
        Disclaimer, I rarely watch it.
        I’m more of an NCIS fan.
        NCIS is definitely action, with a healthy dose of Thinking Man, thrown in ala Abbey, and Ducky.

        • Funny, I see classic NCIS as mostly comedy. 😉
          (Those are the best parts, anyway.)

          You forgot Bishop’s analytical side. I like her eating habits, too.

          • There is definitely an element of Comedy in NCIS.
            However, while it’s important, particularly in the relationships between the characters.
            It doesn’t drive the show. Not by itself.
            The drive seems to come detective/crime solving aspect, Who doneit, and why,
            Comedy and action are bonuses. Bonuses they work very ads to make work and do make work.
            Pages could be written about Gibbs.

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